The Kenny Pickett era has begun for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the first win of it will have to wait for at least another week.
The 20th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft officially made his NFL debut against the New York Jets on Sunday, temporarily leading the Steelers to a lead before the Jets came back to earn the 24-20 victory.
“I just thought we needed a spark,” coach Mike Tomlin said of making the switch to Pickett. “We didn’t do much in the first half, not enough offensively, and thought he could provide a spark for us.”
Tomlin did not commit to making the change a permanent one.
“We did what we needed to do to put ourselves in position to win this game, and we’ll do it again,” Tomlin said. “But I like to just keep it where we are in terms of what transpired here today. We’ll deal with next week, next week.”
If it was up to Mike Martz, who has dealt with his share of quarterback controversies in his years as offensive coordinator and head coach in the NFL, he would stay with Pickett.
“I know he threw three picks … but he’s not afraid to throw it in there,” said Martz, an analyst for The 33rd Team. “I can coach a guy like that. You can fix that. You can’t help a guy who’s afraid to make mistakes and won’t turn the ball loose. That’s where Trubisky is. He’s so tentative and won’t turn the ball loose and give the guys a chance. You can’t help a guy who refuses to be aggressive and isn’t confident about his ability to put the ball where he wants to. That’s what I like about Pickett; we can fix him. I don’t know so much about Trubisky. I know he’s got a big arm, but he’s too tentative.
“I like Pickett. My vote would be to stay with him and fix him.”
Starter Mitch Trubisky played the entire first half for the Steelers, but the team’s offense managed just a pair of field goals, one of which was a 59-yarder by Chris Boswell to set a new Acrisure Stadium record; that kick only came about via a Jets penalty that awarded the Steelers an untimed down. Pickett replaced Trubisky to begin the second half, with the team trailing 10-6.
The Pickett era did not begin as hoped, when Jets safety and former college teammate Jordan Whitehead intercepted the rookie’s first career pass, a deep throw into double coverage for receiver Chase Claypool.
Pickett got his first big NFL moment on the team’s next drive, however, taking a QB keeper into the end zone for his first career touchdown, giving the Steelers a 13-10 lead. He added another rushing score on the following drive to extend the team’s lead. His debut line ended as 10-of-13 passing for 120 yards and three interceptions — two picks coming off of tipped passes and the third coming on a Hail Mary with no time left. He ran it six times for 15 yards and another pair of touchdowns.
The debut sparked a Steelers team fighting to avoid its third straight loss of the season. Pittsburgh led 20-10 with 13:36 to play in the game, up until the Jets authored their second comeback win of the season, both over AFC North opponents.
New York drove it 81 yards in 11 plays to score a touchdown, and then drove it 65 yards on another 11-play drive the next time out to take a 24-20 lead with 16 seconds to play. Running back Breece Hall dove to break the plane of the end zone for the go-ahead score.
The game also marked the 2022 debut of Zach Wilson for the Jets after he missed the team’s first three games as a result of an injury suffered in the preseason. Wilson finished 18-of-36 for 252 yards and a touchdown to Corey Davis, while also throwing a pair of interceptions.
Pickett was the first quarterback selected in the first round by the Steelers since Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. The hometown quarterback spent his collegiate career playing at Acrisure Stadium with the University of Pittsburgh, where he set numerous program records.
Despite being selected in the first round, the Steelers elected to sit the rookie behind Trubisky, who the team signed as a free agent in the offseason. Trubisky earned a win in Week 1 over Cincinnati but suffered losses in each of the next two games. His third consecutive loss on Sunday dropped the Steelers to 1-3.